Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Veterans Day: Soldiers' stories serve as way to reach students

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| November 11, 2009 11:00 PM

Of the 28 men Terry Andreessen served with during the Vietnam War, five died in action, 20 were wounded and three killed themselves after they returned home.

“Not only did the soldiers of our platoon sacrifice their lives and parts of their bodies,” Andreessen said, “many lost parts of their souls.”

Andreessen told a poignant tale Wednesday morning of the tragedy that befell Vietnam War soldiers who, already traumatized by war, were greeted at home with animosity and loneliness.

“We fought like hell and we did win our war in the confines of Vietnam,” Andreessen said. “However, we were unaware of the loss of the war at home in our own country.”

He warned the crowd – made up of high school students, veterans and their families and friends – to learn from what happened.

“I pray to God with all my heart that this great nation does not allow this to happen again,” Andreessen said.

Libby High School’s Veterans Day assembly, hosted by the Social Studies Department, commemorated soldiers who died and celebrated those who lived.

“A vet is someone who at one point in his life wrote a blank check to make payable to the United States of America,” Andreessen said, “up to and including his life.”

Throughout the program, a constant reminder of Andreessen’s words faced the crowd in the form of a large framed photo of Sgt. 1st Class James R. Stright. The 29-year-old LHS graduate died Oct. 23 while participating in a U.S. Army training exercise off the coast of Virginia. The assembly was dedicated to his memory.

Andreessen left his wife and 3-month-old daughter in 1969 when he was drafted into the war. He spoke of his U.S. Army Infantry recon platoon that trekked through the jungles of northern South Vietnam. He recalled carrying 100-pound packs in triple-digit heat, and waiting for months at a time for supplies and word from the outside world to be delivered via helicopter. The men slept on the saturated ground during the monsoon rain season and regularly burned leeches off their bodies.

“I remember when we had two packages of crackers and a little tin of jelly as food rations to eat for six days because the choppers couldn’t get to us,” Andreessen said. “Our war was 360 degrees, 24 hours a day. We had no safe zones.”

Wednesday’s assembly was not only about the hardships and sacrifices of war. LHS teacher Dennis Ashe spoke of the good accomplished by the Navy at the end of the Vietnam War.

“I was fortunate to be able to take part in a really historic humanitarian effort involving refugees in Vietnam,” Ashe said.

Stationed off of the Philippines, Ashe recalled the South Vietnamese taking to the water, many times in un-sea-worthy vessels, to escape the poverty and abuse of their Communist country.

“Your history book mentions them briefly,” Ashe addressed students, “the boat people.”

Ashe was part of a team that gathered the “boat people” and set them up in resettlement camps in the Philippines. While teaching at Texas Tech University 10 years ago, he taught a Vietnamese student that had been a refugee. He and his comrades had helped the girl and her family to safety when she was an infant.

“She and her parents were in that refugee camp in the Philippines,” Ashe said. “It was a remarkable coincidence.”

The speakers expressed gratitude for their good fortune of coming home in one piece, unlike many others.

Terry Maki, LHS graduate and retired Air Force officer, told the audience what he is also thankful for.

“We all have certain things we define ourselves as,” Maki said. “I am thankful and proud to define myself as a veteran.”

Andreessen recalled when Libby soldiers came home from war recently and how it contrasted with the experience of Vietnam veterans.

“They were parading down the street,” Andreessen said. “There were literally thousands of people down the streets applauding them, clapping for them. This is what it should be like. … They deserve to be treated with honor and respect.”